Southern's women's basketball team had a meteoric rise this season, cruising through the Southwestern Athletic Conference with the league’s most innovative and aggressive defense, relying on smaller and quicker players to cause problems for bigger teams.
The strategy aligned Southern with an easy path — just win Thursday — to capture the school’s first outright regular-season SWAC title since 2010-11.
But all of it was dramatically paused in a 66-60 home loss against second-place Texas Southern on Thursday at the F.G. Clark Activity Center.
“That’s the thing,” said senior forward Briana Green, “when you have a golden opportunity to clinch that championship right then and there, and you just let it fall short and slip through your hands. … We want this championship bad.”
Should Texas Southern and Southern each win their final games on Saturday and finish 14-4, a tiebreaker would be given to Southern, which would then claim the No. 1 seed in the SWAC tournament. Texas Southern’s six-point win was not enough to break the SWAC’s point-differential tiebreaker between Thursday’s game and Southern’s 67-57 win at Texas Southern on Jan. 1.
Southern’s final regular-season game is at 3 p.m. Saturday at home against Prairie View A&M.
“End of the day, we’re still in it,” said starting junior center Sarai Blissett. “We’ve got one more game. We’re going to beat (Prairie View). We might have to share it with (Texas Southern), but we’ll see them in the SWAC Tournament and we’ll get them then.”
Physically, Texas Southern was a massive problem.
Texas Southern’s 6-foot-4 center, Taylor Robinson, scored 18 points and was imposing against Southern’s smaller interior defense. The Jaguars’ undersized front line had been a blessing, using speed over size to exploit slower teams with a hectic man-to-man defense.
If the Jaguars cannot flip turnovers, steal and misses into quick layups, they settle for their half-court offense, which can drain the game clock and result in fewer shot attempts and not so many buckets.
Texas Southern, which shot 63.4 percent from the field in the opening half and 51 percent for the game, punched Southern hard early.
The Jaguars’ defense was flat and without answers in the first half. Texas Southern guard Joyce Kennerson, the SWAC’s leading scorer at 24.7 points per game, scored 17 of her game-high 22 points in the first two quarters as Texas Southern led 43-29 at halftime.
“The first half, we let them control the tempo,” Southern coach Sandy Pugh said. “It wasn’t our pace. Then in the second half, we really got our tempo going, getting that basketball down the court. … Like I said, we had every opportunity. We had some people take big shots, and they didn’t come through for us.”
In front of the rowdiest crowd the F.G. Clark Activity Center has hosted this season, Southern’s defense became charged in the middle of the third quarter. The Jaguars cut Texas Southern’s lead to seven points in the third and to 61-58 with 3:36 remaining in the fourth.
At the end, Texas Southern was able to hold on. Because of it, the SWAC’s up for grabs.
“My hat’s off to Texas Southern,” Pugh said. “They came in and did what they needed to do. … I’ve said all along, Texas Southern is our biggest rival. The school’s rival is Grambling, but Texas Southern is our rival. Our history speaks for itself. This would’ve meant a lot to us.”